Tag Archives: George Washington

Article Six

In 1783, the Reverend John Mason of New York complained that “from the Constitution of the United States, it is impossible to ascertain what God we worship, or whether we own a God at all.”

From the very beginning of the experiment called The United States of America, there were those who objected to our famous “separation of church and state.” These early detractors of religious freedom wanted certain churches, or Christianity in general, to have a preferred legal status, and objected to the Constitution’s religiously neutral stance.

One particular article in question was Article Six, which guarantees that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” This was a radical departure from the practice, for example, in Great Britain, where religious dissenters were barred from holding public office.

During the Virginia state conference to ratify the Constitution, an initiative was introduced to change the article’s wording to “no other religious test shall ever be required than a belief in the one only true God…” Although this change was rejected, religious conservatives continued to press for the inclusion of more doctrinaire, confessional language.

But although all of America’s founders believed in God, each in his own way, those who eventually carried the day were much more interested in fostering freedom than in saving souls.

When a group of Roman Catholics wrote to George Washington to inquire how religious minorities would be treated under his administration, his answer was similar to the one he gave to a Jewish congregation with the same question: regardless of religious orientation, all would be “equally entitled to the protection of civil government.”

(Kowalski 16-18)

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The Whiskey Rebellion

In the years between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, the greatest threat to national unity was the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. Although slavery had long been, and would continue to be, the most divisive political issue in the country, the Whiskey Rebellion had nothing to do with slavery. Surprisingly, it was about taxation without representation.

In order to extend the reach of the federal government and give the young nation a little more money in the bank, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton decided to place an excise tax on whiskey.

This wasn’t some sort of “sin tax” designed to cut down on whiskey consumption. Whiskey was the main product of the trans-Appalachian region. The tax was not on the whiskey that was purchased, but on that which was produced and sold by those on living on the country’s western frontier.

The frontiersmen felt betrayed. In their eyes, the government demanding the tax had failed to provide them either roads and canals or protection from a recent wave of Indian attacks. The government was also allowing the British to continue occupying posts along the northwestern frontier. And although those on the frontier had little ready cash, Hamilton insisted on a tax paid in currency. The government seemed to be favoring wealthy eastern landowners, like George Washington himself, over the hardworking frontiersmen who were just trying to get by.

This was exactly the same objection the Founding Fathers had raised against British tyranny before the revolution: taxation without representation. The whiskey tax was specific to the western regions, which were not properly represented in the government that was imposing the tax.

What the frontiersmen did not know was that the government had recently taken steps to meet two of their objections. Major General Anthony Wayne had just won a decisive victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, a clear sign that Washington was indeed willing and able to provide protection from the Indians. And at the time of the revolt, Chief Justice John Jay was negotiating for the withdrawal of British troops from posts in the Northwest.

But word of these actions had not yet reached the frontiersmen.

So they revolted. They refused to pay the tax. They tarred and feathered or shot revenue officers, or burned down their houses. Their rhetoric was identical to that of the Founding Fathers; the idea of secession was implicit. Rumors circulated that the rebels were negotiating with European powers. They intended, in effect, a Second American Revolution.

President Washington had no intention of allowing the nation to be broken up, nor of losing the ownership of tens of thousands of acres of his own property in the West. So in August of 1794 he called out thirteen thousand militiamen and sent them into western Pennsylvania to put down the rebellion.

It was quickly accomplished. As the troops converged on Pittsburgh, the leaders of the rebellion fled. Two of the leaders were captured and shipped back east, where they were tried, convicted of treason, and subsequently pardoned by President Washington.

The whiskey tax was never collected. Jay’s Treaty and the victory at Fallen Timbers appeased the frontiersmen, and the threat of secession was eliminated for the time being.

(Ambrose 38-41)

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Martha Washington’s Black Sister

It was a not very well-kept Washington family secret that Martha Washington had a sister who was black.

Ann Dandridge was the daughter of Martha Washington’s father, John Dandridge, and an unknown slave of mixed African and Native American blood. After John Dandridge’s death in 1756, Ann, who was a young girl at the time, went to live with George and Martha at Mount Vernon and was kept by them as a slave.

Why didn’t Martha free her little sister from slavery? If she had felt any resentment towards her half-sister, Martha could easily have sold or otherwise gotten rid of her, yet she didn’t. She kept her around, lived with her, let her children play with her, but did not set her free.

To Martha, this may have seemed like benevolence. After all, there was no place in 1759 Virginia society for a free black Dandridge female. Ann’s choices in life would have been very limited. She could perhaps have obtained a position as a servant girl to a rich family, but no white man of any substance would have married her. If she had found a black husband, he would most likely have been a slave; her dark-skinned children would have been perpetually at risk of enslavement. Martha may have felt it best to keep Ann enslaved and under her own protection.

So Ann lived at Mount Vernon with her half-sister and brother-in-law. What she did there is unknown, but she probably spent much of her time knitting or sewing in the parlor along with the mistress of the estate and the female house slaves. To visitors she would have seemed just another mixed-race servant, perhaps the mistress’s favorite.

Martha’s “protective” ownership of Ann was not foolproof. Sometime around 1780, Ann Dandridge bore a son, William. It appears that Martha’s son, an unsavory character named Jacky Custis, exerted the rights of a master over a slave; he fathered a child with Ann, who was his aunt as well as his property. Ann’s son William was both grandson and nephew to Martha Washington.

After giving birth to the child of Jacky Custis, Ann married a slave named Costin. The couple had four daughters, all of them nieces of Martha Washington, and all of them born slaves-for-life of the Custis estate. Yet William, her first child and Martha’s grandson, was legally regarded as free, by request of the mistress herself.

Once George and Martha were both dead and Ann was in her forties, she came into the possession of Martha’s granddaughter, Eliza Custis Law.

Eliza and her husband, Thomas Law, were uniquely sensitive to the plight of mixed-race people, for Thomas, before marrying Eliza, had been an official of the East India Company, and had three half-Indian sons.

Upon inheriting ownership of Ann Dandridge in 1802, the Laws freed her almost immediately. Five years later, they emancipated all Ann’s children, her grandchildren, and William Costin’s wife.

(Wiencek 84-86, 282-290)

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The First Emancipation Proclamation

There was a time, during the American Revolution, when the abolition of slavery seemed to be just around the corner.

The Continental Army had become integrated under the leadership of George Washington, and black soldiers had continually demonstrated their valor. In Congress and among the military leaders, there was a strong assumption that emancipation must soon follow.

One giant step in this direction was Washington’s creation of the First Rhode Island Regiment. By late 1777, patriotism was waning, and the revolutionary cause was in desperate need of soldiers. While camped at Valley Forge, Washington received a message from Brigadier General James Mitchell Varnum of Rhode Island. In the message, Varnum requested permission to enlist black soldiers in his home state.

With Washington’s permission, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed an act granting enlistment eligibility to “every able-bodied Negro, Mulatto or Indian man slave.” To such, the act promised complete manumission, plus all the wages and other benefits to which any soldier was entitled. About 250 men immediately joined the First Rhode Island Regiment, which went on to fight valiantly at the Battle of Rhode Island.

Inspired by the success of the Rhode Island plan, Colonel John Laurens of South Carolina soon drafted a plan of his own. Laurens, heir to a slave-trading fortune, had become persuaded that slavery was wrong; his father Henry Laurens shared his views, and the two had discussed strategies for freeing their own slaves. Realizing that Washington’s Rhode Island plan must inevitably lead to the emancipation of Northern slaves, John hoped to accomplish the same for the South.

In the spring of 1778, John Laurens came up with a proposal to raise a force of 5,000 black soldiers who would remain slaves while in the service, and then receive their freedom at the war’s conclusion. Washington immediately approved the plan; his only regret was for the slave owners’ loss of property.

But then the senior Laurens began to have doubts, worrying that the men might not fight as long as they were still slaves. He proposed instead that they be freed immediately, then be given the choice, as free men, whether or not to serve. Given these circumstances, he presumed that most of them would choose to stay home with their families, thus defeating the stated purpose of the plan. Henry further objected on the grounds that if the proposal were made public, few would support it, and John would be exposed to ridicule. Frustrated by his father’s resistance, John Laurens put his plan aside.

By the end of the year, with Southern loyalists rallying to the British cause, the British had captured Savannah, Georgia. Rumors circulated that they were poised to take South Carolina as well. With his home state facing danger, John Laurens revived his plan for a black regiment. Encouraged by his good friend Alexander Hamilton, Laurens refined his original plan, and in March of 1779 he contacted General Washington.

Given Washington’s earlier support of his idea, and the success of the Rhode Island plan, Laurens surely expected that the commander in chief would give his endorsement. But he was disappointed.

Washington had had a change of heart. He now feared, not that the plan would not succeed,but that it would succeed too well. He seems to have feared the consequences for his own slave property. In his letter to Laurens he wrote:

“I am not clear that a discrimination will not render Slavery more irksome to those who remain in it; most of the good and evil things of this life are judged of by comparison; and I fear a comparison in this case will be productive of much discontent in those who are held in servitude.”

He had realized that the existence of free black battalions would make it impossible to preserve the institution of slavery any longer. Paralyzed between financial considerations and his own conscience, he resisted a plan that might lead to the loss of his own property, despite very compelling military necessity.

The window that had opened at Valley Forge, when Washington had seen fit to include black men in the revolutionary cause, had closed again.

John Laurens did not give up. By now it was clear to everyone that emancipation, rather than enlistment, was primarily at issue. Nevertheless, some Southern leaders were willing to tolerate emancipation, simply because of the dire need for troops. Supported by powerful allies, Laurens submitted his proposal, and on March 29, 1779, the Continental Congress unanimously passed what could be called the first Emancipation Proclamation. According to the resolution, congress would compensate slave owners in Georgia and South Carolina up to $1000 apiece for every able-bodied male slave up to 35 years of age who could pass muster. At war’s end, each black soldier would be expected to turn in his arms in exchange for his freedom.

While no one expected an immediate general emancipation, the revolutionary implications of the resolution were clear to everyone. Congress was laying the foundation for the abolition of slavery in America.

Now all the plan needed was the consent of the Georgia and South Carolina legislatures.

Their answer was immediate. The Southern plantation owners would see their region fall to the British before they would agree to arm three thousand slaves.

As a direct result of South Carolina’s failure to produce a black regiment, Charleston fell to the British. The city was reduced to rubble, and John Laurens himself was captured and imprisoned.

He still did not give up. After being released in a prisoner exchange, he continued to promote his plan, without avail, until 1782.

America’s victory in the war for independence meant there would be no Southern emancipation for another eighty years.

(Wiencek 217-236)

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The Poem That Changed Washington’s Mind

Shortly after the Second Continental Congress elected George Washington commander-in-chief of the American military forces, he began a systematic policy for barring black men from military service.

Black soldiers had already distinguished themselves in the patriotic cause. But as a Southern white plantation owner, Washington was understandably alarmed at the idea of giving arms to black freedmen and slaves; the prospect of a slave uprising must have been ever before him. And while there is no record that the common white soldier in New England objected to serving alongside black soldiers, many of the upper-class officers believed it dishonorable to include blacks, whether slave or free.

So in November of 1775, Washington issued a general order that excluded all black men from enlisting.

Yet in December of the same year, he suddenly reversed his policy. He issued another order, allowing free black men the right to enlist in the army.

It was a surprising, rather contrary move, and a rare instance of George Washington changing his mind about anything, ever. The change was apparently not for practical reasons, such as needing more soldiers or the concern that blacks would join the English cause. In writing to John Hancock about his decision, Washington explained that it was due rather to the numbers of black soldiers who had approached him to complain of their dissatisfaction at being excluded.

For the first time in his life, Washington had responded in a fair way to an appeal from free black men. What happened to change his mind?

Shortly before Christmas of 1775, Washington received a letter in the mail at his headquarters in Cambridge. Enclosed in the letter were forty-two lines of elegant verse in flawless iambic pentameter. Full of classical allusions, the poem concluded:

Proceed, great chief, with virtue on thy side,
Thy ev’ry action let the goddess guide.

A crown, a mansion, and a throne that shine,
With gold unfading, WASHINGTON! be thine.”

The lines were written by the woman who was, at that time, the most famous slave in America.

Phillis Wheatley was also the first black person, and only the third American woman, to publish a book of poems. Born in Africa, she was purchased at around age six by the wife of a wealthy Boston tailor and merchant, Susannah Wheatley. While shopping for slaves at the dock, Mrs. Wheatley became captivated by the tiny, wretched child she saw there, dressed only in a scrap of carpet. She purchased the little girl, took her home, nursed her back to health, and gave her the name Phillis, after the name of the ship that had brought her to America.

Phillis had been intended for a household servant, but she soon showed signs of an uncommon intelligence, so the family’s teenaged daughter took it upon herself to teach the child to read and write. Soon she was learning Latin, and by the age of nine was occasionally acting as the family secretary. She began writing poetry just four years after her arrival in Boston, and at seventeen gained wide attention in the colonies for her elegiac poem on the death of George Whitefield. Three years later a collection of her poems was published in London.

Washington was extraordinarily moved upon receiving Wheatley’s letter and poem. So moved, in fact, that he broke the rules of social contact between masters and slaves. He wrote a letter back to her, inviting her to visit him in Cambridge.

It was shortly after meeting Phillis Wheatley that Washington made the extraordinary decision to allow blacks to enlist in his army.

(Wiencek 198-215)

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Washington’s Teeth

Most of us have learned over the years that George Washington’s fabled wooden teeth were not primarily made of wood, but of ivory. What is less well-known is that his dentures were also made partly of human teeth.

The teeth were acquired from his slaves.

While the barbarity of that fact is sobering, it is also the fact that Washington paid the slaves for their teeth. And it is important to realize that the custom of rich people purchasing teeth from poor people was commonplace at the time.

Another common practice was for dentists to actually implant the purchased human teeth into the rich people’s jaws. Washington had this procedure performed in 1784, but it was not successful.

(Wiencek 112)

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“Old Style” Calendar

Until 1752, Britain and her colonies were still using the Julian calendar. Under this system, March 25 was considered the first day of the new year. Benjamin Franklin’s birth date was then recorded as January 6, 1705, and George Washington’s February 11, 1731 (Old Style).

When the calendar was changed to reflect the Georgian system, which is the one we still use, dates were altered by eleven days, making Franklin’s birthday, as we know it, January 17, 1706 and Washington’s February 22, 1732.

(Isaacson 15ff)

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